Filmmaker Bart Layton (‘The Imposter’) makes the jump from documentary to narrative film with ‘American Animals’... kind of.
Back in 2004, a talented young art student, Spencer Reinhard (Barry Keoghan, ‘Dunkirk’, ‘The Killing Of A Sacred Deer’), and his adrenaline-fuelled troublemaking best friend, Warren Lipka (Evan Peters, ‘X-Men: Apocalypse’), begin to meticulously plan a heist of a couple of rare books kept in a secure library on Kentucky’s Transylvania University campus (including folios of John James Audubon’s 'Birds Of America'). Recruiting Chas Allen (Blake Jenner, ‘The Edge of Seventeen’), and Eric Borsuk (Jared Abrahamson, ‘Sweet Virginia’), they disguised themselves as elderly men and tasered the Special Collections librarian, Betty Jean “B.J.” Gooch (Ann Dowd, ‘Hereditary’).
The robbers learned how to pull a heist by visiting websites like “How To Plan a Perfect Bank Robbery” and watching films on the subject, like ‘Reservoir Dogs’ (“probably my least favourite Tarantino film”, quips Eric), ‘The Sting’, ‘Rififi’, and ‘Point Break’.
“Spencer was 'Mr Green' because he smoked lots of green. Eric was 'Mr Black' because he said his soul was black. I was 'Mr Yellow' because I was my mom’s sunshine. And I named Chas 'Mr Pink' just to fuck with him”, according to Warren.
As you can imagine from that dialogue sample, the four students quickly made a series of dumb errors and were apprehended by the FBI.
This fictional retelling of true events combines interviews with the real-life Warren Lipka, Spencer Reinhard, Chas Allen, and Eric Borsuk, allowing the men to narrate the “based on a true story” movie version of their own lives. Keoghan may start a sentence as Spencer, but the camera will then swiftly move right to reveal the real Spencer, finishing the character's sentence.
This technique is handy because the real meat of ‘American Animals’ lies in the mystery surrounding their motivation for committing the robbery. Sure, it was for millions of dollars, but all of the young men came from relatively privileged backgrounds and none had experienced any prior trouble with the law. Spencer is spurred by the notion that all great artists had to endure some kind of hardship to become great, and he's lived a perfectly nice family life. Warren, meanwhile, is a bit of a free spirit, spurred to act mostly out of the desire to see if they could actually pull this off.
It's kind of like ‘I, Tonya’ if the framing interviews were the real people. They are articulate and sympathetic (as is the uniformly good cast), and therefore add a docudrama authenticity to what might be assumed a casual play with the truth. ‘American Animals’ uses this device to address the idea that one individual's recollection of events may be completely different than another's.
It's kind of like ‘I, Tonya’ if the framing interviews were the real people. They are articulate and sympathetic, much as the fine cast is, and therefore add a docudrama authenticity to what might be assumed a casual play with the truth.
This technique also challenges our ingrained expectations regarding fiction and nonfiction; they’re most interesting precisely at the points where the two uncomfortably overlap (when American Animals begins, text appears on the screen stating “This Is Not Based on a True Story,” but after a few seconds the "Not Based on" drops out, and we're left with “This Is a True Story”).
Bart Layton manages to juggle some big tonal shifts. The opening half hour is all about the adrenal rush of planning and strategising a heist. The young robbers feel an urgent engagement with life that has hitherto been absent. This section is all about giving pleasure and excitement. The actual heist itself is deferred gratification gone nightmarishly wrong, and Layton frames it as a frantic, messy and violent act. The aftermath has regret and remorse coursing through its every second - whilst simultaneously revealing the mechanisms at work throughout the film. The last act ratchets up the tension, particularly the entire robbery sequence, due to the impeccable editing, especially the sound editing.
However, ‘American Animals’ occasionally feels like an exercise in style over substance. Its fine to feature cleverly shot scenes of alternate takes based on hazy memories and multiple perspectives but there has to be something meaningful underlying that sort of visual trickery. The little details, like the guys using films like ‘Butch Cassidy’ and ‘The Getaway’ as models when planning their own caper, never really become a vital part of the narrative, either.
Combine this with an almost 2-hour length running time and a slow pace, and the film sometimes stumbles in its race to the finish line. But for the most part, ‘American Animals’ is an unusual crime caper, with a very interesting take on notions of truth, culpability and remorse.